Would you believe that at least half of the old relics stored in the deep, dark, dusty archives of museums worldwide, may be mislabeled? What incredible treasures are cryptozoology lovers missing? Let’s dig into this monster of a mess more deeply!
This study comes to us from the University of Oxford in the UK and was done by researchers Zoe A. Goodwin, David J. Harris, Denis Filer, John R.I. Wood, and Robert W. Scotland who are affiliated with Oxford and/or the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh Scotland. They bring us some important-to-know, but frustrating news. (Dodo bones found at the Grant Museum, London above right.)
To be fair to the researching scientists, this group acknowledges that it’s often difficult to differentiate between species of plants and animals because the differences aren’t always obvious. So over the many years of scientific exploration, it seems quite a few specimens have been mislabeled.
We’ve recently seen this is the dinosaur world, where articles have appeared to correct previous misnomers and inaccuracies in the naming and placing of these ancient creatures.
Dr. Robert Scotland said, in an article for ScienceDaily, “Many areas in the biological sciences, including academic studies of evolution and applied conservation, as well as achieving the 2020 targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity, are underpinned by accurate naming. Without accurate names on specimens, the records held in collections around the world would make no sense, as they don’t correspond to the reality outside.” (Storage left at Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.)
The problem multiplies as this inaccurate data gets sucked up into the internet, residing in databases all over the place, further propagating the mistakes.
How to fix this problem, then? Well, the first step was taken by researcher Denis Filer who created a program called the Botanical Research and Herbarium Management System (BRAHMS) that compares and analyzes the names of species looking for mistakes.
What They Found
They started with a group of plants whose study was completed in 2014. The plants were from the African ginger genus Aframomum. The researchers found that at least 58% of the specimens had been misidentified.
The team next contemplated the problem of one species having different names in different museums, because they were named at different times by different people. The problem arises because plant collectors take several samples of the same plant and distribute one to each of several museums around the world. According to researcher Zoe Goodwin, “It’s a bit like separating identical twins at birth.”
So the team analyzed another plant species, Dipterocarpaceae (Asian rainforest trees) and found that over 9,000 collections were categorized wrongly so it looked like there were over 21,000 specimens. They found that nearly a third of them have different names in different collections worldwide.
Finally, the team turned to the online problem. They searched the Global Biodiversity Information Facility database for the records of Ipomoea (a large genus that includes the sweet potato). According to the ScienceDaily article, “Examining the names found on 49,5000 specimens from the Americas, they found that 40% of these were outdated synonyms rather than the current name, and 16% of the names were unrecognizable or invalid. In addition 11% of the specimens weren’t identified being given only the name of the genus.”
According to the research team, there are three main reasons:
Monographs aren’t being written properly due to a lack of time and research. (My thought: This could be due to underfunding of science programs and a lack of scientists to complete the work.) What is a monograph? According to the dictionary, “a highly detailed and thoroughly documented study or paper written about a limited area of a subject or field of inquiry; an account of a single thing or class of things, as of a species of organism.”
Scientists are finding specimens so quickly these days, they can’t keep up. (Back to my comment about not enough scientists.) They report that “50% of the world’s specimens in 2000 have been collected since 1969.”
Thirdly, the research team feels that it’s impossible for scientists to see and learn all the specimens collected around the world, much less keep the names straight. Our world is so populated with wonderful flora, that we can’t take it in quickly enough. On one hand, that’s great! On the other, it’s making big problems for scientists.
The researchers added, if we think the problem with plants is bad, the problem with the taxonomies (“the science dealing with the description, identification, naming and classification of organisms”) of the other 1.8 million species on Earth, of which 0.35 are flowering plants and 0.95 million are insects, could be worse.
How to Fix This?
Per the ScienceDaily article, “The team suggests that digitized specimens – that can be remotely accessed so that researchers anywhere can use them for species-level taxonomy – as well as DNA sequencing are two essential tools that can be used to improve the names associated with the world’s natural history collections. But they also caution that these approaches will only improve the quality of naming if integrated alongside taxonomic projects.”
The team, led by Dr. Scotland, is currently figuring out how to better integrate taxonomies worldwide by creating something called a “foundation monograph.” They’ve tried it on two plant studies, one for Convolvulus and one for Ipomoea, both from Bolivia.
Why Should Crypto Lovers Care?
I think by now you must see the implications. If they are having trouble keeping plants straight, how much harder must it be to sort out what’s a new animal (cryptid?) from something else.
If you recall from my article about the Alaskan Tiger, scientists have a difficult time telling if a skeleton is that of a tiger or a lion because they are so similar. Now extrapolate that to specimens buried deep in a museum’s basement for who knows how long, and you see the problem.
My first thought is, I bet somebody has a Bigfoot body somewhere that was found so long ago, they didn’t realize what it was! I can hope!
But who knows? The possibilities are endless. This is why I find science so exciting. It doesn’t have to condemn the possibilities of strange and wonderful creatures in this world, it’s trying to keep up with a wealth of information overload that they can barely handle.
That’s why it is SO important to get good, irrefutable evidence of Bigfoot (and any other cryptid) so that science can identify it (them) properly, once and for all.